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Runaways' Dinosaur Old Lace Is Proof That TV VFX Budgets Can Do Amazing Things

Image: Hulu

A big part of watching scifi and fantasy TV is teaching yourself to overlook the sometimes shoddy special effects used to bring the impossible to life. Some shows, like The Flash, lean into their VFX’s crappiness for camp, while others, like Inhumans, seem to simply not care. But then there are shows like Hulu’s Runaways that put other shows to shame with their impressive and creative use of a TV FX budget.

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Out of all of Marvel’s TV shows, Runaways might be the most technically difficult to bring to the small screen when you take into account just how complicated the team is. You’ve got a super strong kid sister, a hacker, and a tech genius—all fairly easy to pull off—but then there’s also an iridescent alien made of light, a powerful witch, and a girl with a living dinosaur.

Nico’s Staff of One has had a flew flashy moments here and there, and Karolina’s Majesdanian form is passable (but not quite the visual spectacle it is in the comics.) But when it came to Old Lace, Gert’s (Ariela Barer) pet deinonychus with whom she has a psychic rapport, there was some very justified uncertainty as to how Runaways was going to manage creating a CGI dinosaur that read as believable. After making brief appearances in a couple of episodes as a rustling in the bushes or a flash of leathery, gray-green skin, Old Lace finally made her first full-on appearances over the course over the last two episodes. Against all odds, she looks phenomenal.

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Because Old Lace is just as much a member of the Runaways team as any of the kids, it was crucial that the production team got her right, which doesn’t just mean that the dinosaur had to look realistic—the actors needed to be able to interact with her in a believable way. Runaways uses a clever blend of CGI and practical effects during Old Lace’s shots that blend seamlessly together. Wider, establishing shots of the animal are mostly (if not entirely) rendered with computers, while tighter shots (especially those involving live actors) use what appear to be very detailed puppets of Old Lace’s head and talons.

It’s in the moments where Runaways defy blurs the line between puppetry and VFX that Old Lace comes alive. During her first encounter with Molly (Allegra Acosta) when the two fight inside of the Yorkes’ house, there are just enough little practical, physical details—strands of saliva, a bumped nose ring—that when the edit suddenly shifts to a CGI-heavy shot, your mind still accepts the dinosaur as a tangible thing. Runaways’ actors do a phenomenal job of selling their scenes involving Old Lace, which also plays a significant role in making the character work. All the nifty FX tricks in the world can’t compensate for actors who can’t quite get the hang of interacting with CGI characters, but for the cast here, thankfully that’s a non-issue.

So far, we’ve only really seen Old Lace in darker, more enclosed settings and it’ll be interesting to see how Runaways handles her once the team is out and about in broad daylight. Until then, though, Old Lace is more than welcome to stay in the shadows, luxuriating in the fact that she’s running laps around Medusa’s terrible wig.

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io9 Culture Critic and Staff Writer. Cyclops was right.

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DISCUSSION

People tend to forget that this is how the original Jurassic Park did the dinosaurs — mostly through live animatronics, with CGI only used in full-length or action shots. After all, the film was planned out with the expectation that they’d use stop-motion models for the long shots, and since that technique never looked entirely convincing, Spielberg wanted to use full-size animatronics as much as he could. Then, the CGI people proved they could handle the shots that had been slated for stop-motion (although they were still animated by Phil Tippett’s stop-motion team using stop-motion techniques, except instead of being lifelike miniatures, they animated articulated models with joint sensors that fed the movements to the computer).

The tendency is to mistakenly assume that all of the dinosaur effects in JP were CGI, which has led to the overuse of CGI on the assumption that it can do everything. But the truth is that the JP dinosaurs worked so well because they were mostly live, practical effects, and it was the reality of the animatronic dinos that sold the CG shots in between. I’m glad at least some FX artists have remembered that.